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Change is hard – with great technology comes great upheaval

23 Apr 2014


For the last 60 – 70 years, we have lived in an era of significant stability.  That seems to be over.  We’ve all seen how the internet has changed certain businesses (music, newspapers and bookstores).  Technology can be a huge boon but it can be quite disruptive.

The transition from gasoline to electric or hybrid vehicles has been somewhat bumpy as governing bodies struggle with whether dealerships are required and how to pay for roads when less (or no) gasoline will be used.  This is a growing issue as more electric and hybrid vehicles take to the road and as the condition of our Michigan roads continues to cry out for repairs.

As I’ve blogged about before, recent rhetoric suggests that Oakland and Macomb Counties may declare their independence from the DWSD.  With both counties now spending money to evaluate their options, what happens next is less clear. Given that DWSD has apparently not set its rates high enough to cover all the infrastructure improvements needed over the next 5 – 10 years, it is possible (although perhaps unlikely) that a Macomb-Oakland system might actually cost less to develop, construct and operate than the DWSD system.  Such a separation could lead the DWSD to owning over-sized water and waste treatment systems relative to their customer base and the oldest waste and water lines which are likely most in need of repair.  Given DWSD’s well publicized collection issues, this has to be making the investment community nervous as reflected in two investment firms’ recent subpoenas.  This much turmoil would seem to make the DWSD’s recent RFP less appealing than usual.

as with prior technical revolutions, change tends to be messy and the larger the change, the greater the mess

Finally (for the moment), we have seen many advances in the development of solar energy – some of which we’ve discussed on this blog – while those are exciting, they, like changes to gas driven cars and changes to 100+ years of centralized water and sewer systems, challenge the status quo.  For over 75 years, utilities have generated and supplied the electricity and natural gas that we consume in our homes and businesses from centralized points. As part of the deal, those same utilities have maintained the infrastructure needed to both generate and transmit gas and electricity.  So, what happens when people can start generating electricity on their own roofs?  Some hail it as a triple win (saving money, the environment and societal benefits) but most solar generators stay “on the grid” and as a result sometimes are contributing electricity to the grid and other times are drawing on the grid.  Under most systems, including Michigan’s, smaller generators can sell their electricity back to the grid at the utility’s retail price – so called “net metering.”

The ability to sell excess power back at the retail -not wholesale- price, raises the question of who pays for the infrastructure necessary to provide the electricity to those on the grid.  Utilities argue that those installing solar are not paying their “fair share” of such costs.  There are those who say that the price of electric service includes roughly 50% for non-generation expenses.  Some experts argue that there is no such “cost-shifting” occurring because there are savings on power plants, transmissions lines, lost energy as well as the ability to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals without utilities having to make the capital investment.  This is a tough debate and is not something easily reduced to 60 second soundbites and at present is being decided on a state by state basis.

Ultimately, the challenge of existing infrastructure combined with legacy costs makes the transition in technology and improving efficiency much harder and far more political than a “free market” would prefer.  But, as with prior technical revolutions, change tends to be messy and the larger the change, the greater the mess.

“Free” Energy Efficiency Funds Available to Michigan Small Businesses

17 Apr 2014

 The Michigan Energy Office recently announced a grant program where they will match building owner (private and non-profit) funds of between $5,000 and $20,000 for energy efficiency projects.  Any small business or private nonprofit organization with fewer than 100 employees statewide that owns a commercial building in Michigan is eligible to apply.

 There is a process with written and oral presentations and the goals are to improve energy efficiency by 20% or more through each funded project and to cause funds to be reinvested based on savings.  This may make some smaller private projects that have been sitting on the shelf awaiting funding viable.

You will need an itemized budget and budget narrative and be able to justify the expense and the savings you expect as well as jump through a number of other “hoops.”  Please let me know if you’d like more information about the program.

Solar mirror project goes on line.

14 Feb 2014

ku-xlargeNow this looks like something out of Star Trek.  Back in 2011, I blogged about this project which was being constructed in the California desert. It is supposedly the largest solar installation in the world and it has just gone on line. Wow.

What will be the top green stories of 2014?

8 Jan 2014

greatlakesAs this new year kicks off, we thought we’d look ahead at what we think may be the big stories of 2014 at, in no particular order:

Wetlands – Will EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers finalize guidance regarding the scope of waters regulated under the Clean Water Act? Or will there be new rules or even new legislation?  There are members of Congress on  both sides of this issue and it is unclear which way this issue will go, although the federal trend is to try and govern as many bodies of water no matter what. This fall, EPA published a draft connectivity analysis which many view as a prelude to new regulations attempting to vest the federal government with broad jurisdictional over virtually every drop of water in the country. It will be interesting if the federal government tries to delete the “significant” portion of the Rapanos “significant nexus” test.

• Hydraulic Fracturing –  this continues to be a lightning rod for controversy.  At the end of 2013, the Associated Press reported on both alleged and confirmed environmental problems in 4 states including Ohio and Pennsylvania.  Michigan looks to beef up its oversight of, and its communications regarding, fracking proposals and operations.  The University of Michigan continues to study the technical issues.  The focus on this issue seems to be shifting toward the volumes of water used in fracturing and monitoring withdrawals used for oil and gas production. It appears that the 2012 U.S. Department of the Interior draft rules for fracking on federal and Indian lands remain draft – will they ever be finalized?

• MDEQ Brownfield Process Streamlining.  MDEQ has promised to convene a short-term task force to work on harmonizing, improving and streamlining the various funding mechanisms currently used to incentivize brownfield redevelopment. This can only be a plus.

• MDEQ Cleanup Rules – as required by the Legislature, MDEQ proposed adopting its previously informal standards as formal cleanup rules late in 2013.  The MDEQ will continue to work on improving and in some cases broadening its cleanup rules and criteria – we expect more work on the assumptions of exposure underpinning the standards, more work on vapor intrusion standards and more work on standards and processes applicable to groundwater venting into surface waters.  MDEQ also continues to discuss more rules and standards defining what constitutes “due care” which is an issue for property owners who are not liable pursuant to a BEA and for other reasons.

• Keystone Pipeline.  As we predicted, President Obama and Congress continue to be locked in a politically charged dispute over the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed 1,700-mile oil pipeline from Canada to Texas.  The President deferred it and lately the pundits have argued that pipelines are safer than transporting shale oil by truck and train.

• Energy Policy In Michigan – at the end of the year, and after a year of “listening” sessions and collecting information, Governor Snyder indicated that he intends to seek legislation improving Michigan’s energy policies, focusing on lowering costs, improving reliability and minimizing environmental impacts.  This will be interesting.

So that whole solar mirror thing really works?

5 Sep 2013

The sun – it’s not just for tricks anymore,

Two years ago, I blogged about Chevron using solar mirrors to power oil/gas explorations.

This concept seems like something out of science-fiction – although developers have built a 300,000 mirror solar generator which is reportedly about to go on-line in the Mojave Desert.  So, you say, how much solar power can be generated when so few of us live in the desert?

Now comes news out of London of all places about a building that appears to have  inadvertently set up its own solar mirror system.  A gentleman in London claims that a mirrored building actually melted parts of his car after only two hours!  Seems like a possible new design trend in the offing, if they can figure out how to capture that energy!

Energy creativity – thinking outside the box

31 Jul 2013

Has inspiration struck?

Can we produce “clean” energy to: (1) cost effectively enough to put into use, (2) reduce dependance on foreign oil and US coal; and (3) reduce carbon emissions?

Despite a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal discussing Europe’s experience with higher cost, less dependable solar and wind power, the creativity of academia never ceases to amaze me. I recently came across an article about this publication, Environmental Science & Technology Letters and a paper in it about utilizing CO2 emissions from power plants in fluids, where the CO2 was split into positive and negative ions. The ions were then used to create a flow of electrons that could be captured by an electrode, creating electricity. While this proof-of-concept is not yet efficient (i.e., it uses more energy than it generates), the researchers believe that they may be able to turn that around and make it cost-effective. While this wouldn’t reduce CO2 emissions, it could double the amount of energy associated with the same emissions, effectively cutting CO2 emissions in half per kilowatt generated.  If this works (and there’s no guarantee that it will), it would also enable us to continue to use the current grid system.

Just as interesting, and farther along, are the University of Michigan’s experiments, described here, with capturing energy from low flow water bodies.  The concept of hydroelectric energy is not new but UM apparently thinks that they may have found an efficiency that others may have missed allowing energy to be generated without dams and using natural flow rates.

Whether these technologies will turn out to be cost-effective remains to be seen but the ingenuity of mankind certainly gives me hope that we can protect the planet, be efficient and not have to become luddites.

Earth Day at 43 – 43 shades of grey

22 Apr 2013

Earth Day 43 seems to have been lost given the recent events in Boston, Texas and elsewhere.  The environmental news continues to be a mixed bag – with reports of fewer Americans “caring” about the environment but perhaps more “acting” in a “green” way.

We have certainly come a long way from the challenges and problems that led to the first Earth Day –  a 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California; the dead zone in Lake Erie; smog in Los Angeles and elsewhere and burning rivers in the Midwest.

The first Earth Day led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.  As the EPA and its state counterparts have continued to regulate, there has been a backlash of business and media outcry which certainly must weigh on the public’s views.

The challenges we face today are far more complicated and, to many, more daunting.  We still have oil spills, but now they are from larger ships and deeper wells.  Lake Erie and many other bodies of water are still challenged by more diffuse and “below the radar” sources of contamination.  While reducing the impacts of asbestos, lead and NOx from our daily lives, and healing the ozone hole, we now face questions regarding greenhouse gasses, impacts from and in China and the developing world, and the challenges and benefits posed by fracking.

As is often the case, once the “low hanging fruit” of black and white are picked, what we are left with is grey and grey isn’t as shocking or engaging as black and white.  The issues are just as important, and in many ways, very high profile, but it’s unlikely that our polarized country would agree on what changes would be best, if any.